We recently had the pleasure of interviewing Özlem Kurt, Internal Communications Manager at Allianz Australia and an expert in her field. Before moving to Sydney, Özlem was Head of Internal Communications at Allianz Turkey, having also worked with one of the top tier banks in Turkey and a large oil company. She has won numerous awards for her work, including the Harvard Business Review Award and the IPRA Award from the International Public Relations Association in 2016. She is passionate about internal communications and was kind enough to share what she believes are the 5 most common pitfalls that organisations of all shapes and sizes fall into.
Hi Özlem. First of all, why the move to Australia?
At the time, I was Head of Internal Communications at Allianz Turkey in Istanbul. When I got married, we came here for our honeymoon and fell in love with the city, the people, the climate and the nature. My husband got an offer from Ernst & Young during our visit and we made the decision to move. Allianz is a worldwide organisation so I had the opportunity to continue my career within the same company here in Australia.
Tell us about the size and scale of the Allianz business at the moment
Allianz has been around for 130 years. It is one of the world’s leading integrated financial services companies with over 142,000 employees, providing support for over 100 million customers across 70 countries. We have been in Australia for over 100 years. I am responsible for internal comms within the customer services department – the largest customer-facing division. So yeah, this is big.
We know that you are passionate about your job and have your own perspectives on the mistakes organisations most commonly make. What are those 5 common pitfalls in Internal Communications?
I’ve always worked for large scale, international firms and I have colleagues in many other businesses and countries. We exchange our ideas and desires regarding internal communications. The things I want to touch on are my general thoughts and observations. They may not be for all organisations but they do hold true for many, many businesses.
The 5 Common Pitfalls in Internal Communications
- Technology is overwhelming communications
- Internal Comms have no seat at the table
- Short term contracts
- Too many surveys, not enough action
- Lack of transparency and honesty
Technology is overwhelming internal communications
Connecting with others is the glue that bonds people together within an organisation. Even before Covid, online channels were essential and firms invested in many technological solutions. However, what I observe and hear from colleagues and friends is that employees really get lost in the vast number of channels used. Companies have their intranets, which are usually old school and make it impossible to find what you’re looking for. International firms will also have a global intranet. We use emails as well as social channels like Microsoft Teams, Yammer, Slack, etc. Some teams even use WhatsApp and text messaging. In many instances, technology departments make the decisions on what technology to invest in without consulting or collaborating with Internal Comms or HR teams.
Too much noise
So, imagine you’re an employee. We send out so many internal communications via so many different channels. You also receive messages from colleagues. Then you have your own social media apps and are bombarded with external push notifications through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn. Do you think you can possibly read all of the comms from these competing channels on top of completing your daily tasks? Of course not. Trying to keep up makes people feel overwhelmed. I agree with 360 communication – it gives us the greatest ability to truly get employee attention and engagement. But, as internal communicators, we need to take an effective channel management approach. We need to take a complete view of the whole employee experience and reconsider our communications channels, creating a central hub where people can find what they’re looking for.
Plan for the workforce of tomorrow
There is another vital consideration when adopting any new technologies. According to a Deloitte Millennial Survey, by the end of 2025, 75% of the global workforce will be millennials. 45% of millennials say that companies’ communications are outdated, and survey results underline that the vast majority of them prefer instant and mobile communications. So, the workforce of tomorrow will engage with mobile-first internal communication solutions, with constant access to up-to-date information on demand.
Keep one step ahead of rapidly-changing technology
Lastly, things are changing so rapidly in the technology world. As components become smaller and cheaper, smart wearables are poised to penetrate the workplace. This will totally change the way of internal communications. In the near future, maybe we will be sharing our CEO message using holograms. The day is not far off when we will use augmented or virtual reality for learning and development. I believe that all companies need to reconsider the tools they use, and that Internal Comms should be involved in the initial decision-making. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Channel segmentation needs to be aligned with the company culture, the demographics and the psychographics of the employees. And it has to be aligned with the technology we use in our daily lives.
Internal Communications have no seat at the table
This is a big improvement area for organisations. If you look at an organisation chart, Internal Comms usually come under the HR, Corporate Comms or Marketing department. This means that the head of HR could be our representative at the management team table. They are the ones having the discussions and making decisions. With all respect, I’m sure they do their best to cascade down the information. What I would like to see is the opportunity for Internal Comms people to have their own seat at the table so that we can be more proactive in creating strategic communications plans. This is essential in crisis situations, such as Covid, but also during mergers, acquisitions, restructuring or downsizing. These things ultimately drive organisation, stability and culture. Internal Comms must help shape and guide management actions and decisions so that they are clearly understood, actively engaged, properly discussed and debated. The Internal Communications department must be viewed as an important component of a company’s management model, not as a separate and distinct function. We need a seat at that table.
Short term contracts
I see so many job ads looking for an internal comms position for only three months. With all due respect to those companies, and to those short term employees, it is really hard to understand the culture of a company within a few months. How can anyone understand the employees’ needs, their current situation and expectations within a few months? It takes time. It takes cultural immersion. It was really difficult for me when I moved here. Although I was already part of Allianz, the company culture here and the work culture in Australia were very different from those in Turkey. All organisations are unique. Even departments have their own expectations. The needs of IT will be totally different from those of call centre employees, so their internal communications strategies should be tailor made. I believe companies should keep their internal communications employees for at least a year so that they have a better understanding of the company culture. Unfortunately, when companies hire short term, all the shared company knowledge disappears.
The other side of this is the lack of communication between communication roles. When companies hire a short term, dedicated comms person for almost every project, it becomes so hard to align the organisation’s communications, to set the tone of voice. You need to sense how the workforce is feeling and operating at any given moment, and provide proper narrative that respects this. It is not a side role that HR can do in addition to their own role. You need a long term, dedicated team to manage a strong, consistent communications strategy.
Too many surveys, not enough action
Surveys are essential for every internal communicator looking to gather employee feedback. The problem so often is that we don’t share the results, or tell anyone what we are doing with the information we collect – or whether we are doing anything at all. What I observe these days is that employees are suffering from survey fatigue and they get frustrated when they are asked to provide feedback and ideas but nothing changes. If we are not going to follow up on what employees have said, it’s worse than not asking the questions in the first place.
Surveys are a great way to improve communication between management and employees but only if we use them effectively. They are really helpful when leaders schedule team meetings to discuss the results, look at what they can do together and continually improve employees’ experiences. You said… We did…
Lack of transparency and honesty in internal communications
Last, but not least, transparency and honesty should be our number one priority. Think how we build relationships with friends. We observe, we get to know each other, we learn more about the other person’s problems, priorities, backgrounds and how they react to things. Slowly, we build respect, trust and love. I believe that an employee’s relationship with their company is no different. We need to build respect and trust. So, telling people there will be no bonuses this year because of quality, then announcing millions of dollars of profits is really annoying. It’s insulting. You lose their trust and confidence, which are essential to loyalty and productivity. Of course, organisations must take care of themselves in order to be successful and sustainable. However, I believe we should handle our internal communications in a more transparent way. Our employees are clever enough to see the hidden agendas. We need to trust their ETQ and IQ, which is, after all, the reason we hired them in the first place. Let’s replace spin with honesty.
So, if we asked you to stick your neck out, which of those 5 pitfalls would you say is the most important?
The last one. Without trust and transparency, your employees will not believe in you whatever you do. Without that trust, millions turns into nothing.
Finally, we ask everyone this. What is the one thing that most people don’t know about you?
Actually, I’m a certified professional co-active coach and also an organisation and relationship systems coach. I’m working on a video platform where people can find short videos regarding effective communications and some of these coaching techniques. It will be in Turkish as there’s not a lot of this type of content out there in Turkish. I wanted it to be a social responsibility project to support those people as well.
Many thanks to Özlem for such an in-depth insight into the challenges of internal communications. If you would like to reach out and connect with Özlem, or check out her new website, links are below.